Scientists have recently discovered Xinjiang cotton in shirts and T-shirts made by Adidas, Hugo Boss, and Puma clothing, although the brands have vowed to no longer source materials or products from the Chinese province, where forced labor is being exploited by persecuted Muslim minorities.
Experts believe that the Xinjiang authorities are forcing more than half a million Uighurs, Kazakhs and other ethnic groups to take up arms under the guise of state-sponsored “poverty alleviation” projects.
At the same time, it is part of a broader campaign of assimilation and repression that many, including the US government, have called genocide but Beijing has vehemently denied.
Adidas, meanwhile, said in 2019 that it had “never made a product in Xinjiang and had no contractual relationship with any Xinjiang supplier.”
Last year, Hugo Boss stated that it did not tolerate any form of modern slavery and that it did not collect any products directly from suppliers from the Xinjiang region.
But the results of an isotope analysis reported last week by the German public broadcaster NDR show that fashion companies, in order to clean up their troubled fiber supply chains, Xinjiang
Produces 85 percent of China’s cotton, making up about one-fifth of the world’s total cotton.
Previous studies have also highlighted the problem of cotton “laundering” through other countries which may obscure the true source of the material.
Agroisolab managing director Markus Boner told NDR, “Nature has left a signature in the cotton, which is caused, for example, by the climate and geology of a place.”
Isotope analysis is also employed by archaeologists, geologists and forensic scientists to compare chemical elements within organic and inorganic compounds.
On the other hand, Puma said that it “immediately” launched an investigation to reconfirm the cotton origin of the products in question as soon as it caught wind of the allegations.
Their supplier has confirmed that the cotton of both products originates from Brazil and not from China, also they are currently conducting further investigations through an external laboratory.
Based on all the information they obtained through their investigations, and the traceability controls they put in place in their supply chain, also they are confident that they do not source cotton from the Xinjiang region.
Hugo Boss said it is reviewing the NDR report and its “position remains unchanged.” Although the company is currently part of a criminal complaint in Germany for “profiting” from Uyghur forced labor, when it rejected the claim last year that it believes that its “values and standards have been adhered to in the manufacture of our goods and that there have been no violations of the law.”
Other companies embroiled in the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights’ complaint included C&A and Lidl, which also rejected the allegations.
Meanwhile, German lawmaker’s greenlit a mandatory due-diligence law that could soon fine companies millions of euros for labor abuses that occur at any point in their supply chain.
A reported one-tenth of Puma’s 18,000 global staff are based in the company’s home country. Hugo Boss’ German headcount looks to be somewhere around 3,000.
Any hint of Xinjiang cotton could also ice out certain markets, chief among them the United States, where a ban on cotton and cotton-containing products from Xinjiang has been in effect since 2021.
The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which President Biden signed into law in December and will kick into gear next month, goes even further by placing a rebuttable presumption that all exports made in whole or in part in Xinjiang are tainted with forced labor and are therefore verboten on U.S. shores.
Again there’s a great need now to increase the capacity of the enforcement authorities. Source tracing mechanisms have to be strengthened—it almost probably has to be made a requirement.